What are you afraid of?

Posted February 28 2013 by Sandi Metz

We were thrilled to have [Sandi Metz] (http://sandimetz.com/) speak twice at GORUCO, in 2009 and 2011. And since then, we’ve happily watched her move on to achieve further renown in the Ruby scene, as a continent-spanning technology speaker and as the author of the highly acclaimed [Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby] (http://www.poodr.info/).

As we reach out to a broader base of speakers, we keep hearing that people are intimidated by the idea of giving a talk at GORUCO. We thought Sandi might have some great advice on the subject, and she was kind enough to write a guest post for us. No doubt you’re familiar with her amazing insights on object-oriented design; read on for her thoughtful perspective on fear, and what it takes to overcome it. —Francis Hwang

What are you afraid of? In my case, it was everything. On the morning of the day of my first-ever talk at a conference, I was terrified. And this fear didn’t start on that day: I had been afraid for months.

I was afraid to respond to the CFP. I was terrified when my talk got selected. My fears were initially diffuse, unnamed and unexamined, but rapidly became specific, precise and explicit. My topic seemed boring, my slides incomprehensible, my explanations confusing, and my examples pointless. The talk ruled me for three months, during which time fear lead to excessive research, fiendish preparation and endless practice.

On the day of reckoning, I found myself sitting in the audience, watching the clock tick glacially forward, discovering an entirely new set of fears. I was afraid I would fall flat on my face as I ascended the steps to the stage, that I would be too dry-mouthed to talk and then would spill or choke on any water I attempted to drink. That my voice would quaver, that I would freeze in place, that in any of a million unexpected ways, it would all go very, very badly.

Fear of public speaking is nearly universal. Some folks are better at hiding fear, and others are quicker to get over it, but nearly everyone starts out scared. Most speakers don’t get on stage because they are without fear—they get up there in spite of it.

I see this on a regular basis when I help others prepare for upcoming speaking engagements. But this fear is normal, and it’s something you can overcome. A few tips:

You can choose emotions other than fear

When you encounter or anticipate a stressful situation, some of what you’re feeling is undeniably physical. Most people will feel the effects of adrenaline, such as shakiness, rapid breathing, and narrowed vision.

But you have a choice as to how you interpret that physiological response. Psychology tells us that our brains examine our bodies and decide how to feel. So instead of turning your stress response into a crippling fear, you can turn it into a readiness to do your best. It helps to be conscious of your own thought process, and to embrace the slightly scary feeling. But it’s something athletes and performers do all the time, and something you can do too.

Remember that the audience is on your side

This was the most unexpected discovery from my first talk. Before I got on stage, I was scared that the audience would be hostile, but in fact they were incredibly supportive.

In retrospect, it makes sense. At the right tech conference, audiences are people who are there for the same reason you’re there: You’re all passionate about your work. So if you prepare a talk where you explore and advance that passion, people will respect it.

Conquering fear is good for you

Overcoming scary obstacles, in my experience, is cumulative. Once you’ve done it once, the next scary thing isn’t so scary any more.

So that’s as good a reason as any to try to give a conference talk. Even if you don’t know if you want to become a regular on the conference circuit, the experience of doing something that scares you is reason enough to give it a shot.

It doesn't matter where it ends: The point is to take that next step. The knowledge that you can conquer your fears makes anything possible.

Are you ready for this?

Feel like digging further into the subject? For an overview of the research about performing your best under pressure, I recommend [Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To] (http://www.amazon.com/Choke-Secrets-Brain-Reveal-Getting/dp/1416596186). For the insiders view from a professional, see [Confessions of a Public Speaker] (http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Public-Speaker-English/dp/1449301959).

And if you’re ready to take on this next challenge, if you think now would be the perfect time to prove to yourself that you can conquer this fear, [the GORUCO CFP is still open] (http://goruco.wufoo.com/forms/goruco-2013-call-for-proposals/). They’d love to hear from you.